Funding & Finance

With a $100,000 Gates grant, IPS moves to strengthen district, charter school collaboration

PHOTO: Scott Elliott
Indianapolis Public Schools received a $100,000 grant to promote partnership with charter schools.

When staff from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation came to Indianapolis in 2011, they were hoping to fund and support partnerships between district and charter schools. But local officials showed so little interest in collaborating, that the idea was scrapped.

That’s the story told in new grant proposal submitted to the Gates Foundation by the Indianapolis Public Schools last December.

Just five years on, the district has gone through a complete overhaul. Two election cycles brought in a wave of board members, nearly all of whom are eager to see greater collaboration with charter schools.

In 2013, the board hired Superintendent Lewis Ferebee, who has been an advocate for partnerships with charter schools, leasing district buildings to charter schools and supporting legislation to allow the district to hand management of failing schools over to outside organizations, such as charter schools.

With such strong support for district-charter partnerships from IPS leaders, it’s not surprising that when the district applied for a grant from the Gates Foundation in December, it was approved. The foundation awarded IPS a $100,000 grant to help support the district innovation office and fund a new innovation manager position. The board voted to accept the grant at a meeting today.

“I’m very excited,” said Board President Mary Ann Sullivan. “We have some great assets within the district that hopefully we can make available to maybe some schools that previously had not been able to access those things.”

Several Indianapolis charter schools, all current or potential innovation partners, signed on to a district-charter compact, an IPS official said. They include Enlace Academy, KIPP College Prep Middle School and KIPP Indy Unite Elementary School. In development are three new partner schools including Westside Community Middle School, Kindezi Academy and Global Preparatory Academy.

Board member Gayle Cosby voted against accepting the grant. The Gates Foundation typically awards grants to districts that are moving toward privatization, she said.

“To me it signaled the beginning of an era of intensified privatization of our district,” she said. “My hope is that IPS continues to be in the business of educating children, not just supporting charter schools that are educating children.”

The funding will help IPS pursue plans to grant school leaders more freedom and partner with outside organizations to run some schools. It will also take the district one step closer to a potential partnership with charter schools encompassing unified enrollment and a shared system to give families looking for schools information on school quality that would include measures such as parent perceptions of schools and how well they serve high-needs students.

The push for a unified enrollment system is being led by The Mind Trust fellow Caitlin Hannon, a former school board member who resigned in August to develop the new enrollment process. It would provide one stop for families applying for spots in the city’s charter and IPS schools.

“We have a system of choice, and we have a lot of choices in Indianapolis,” Hannon said. “But they’re really, really confusing for all families, let alone the families that need them the most.”

(Read more: Hannon’s goal: Help parents make choices and give schools useful data.)

The district has not committed to joining Enroll Indy, Hannon’s enrollment system, but Ferebee has been part of the planning process.

“They’ve been fruitful conversations, but there still remains a lot to be determined in terms of details and logistics,” Ferebee said.

IPS also is working with Mayor Joe Hogsett’s office on a separate project to try to create a system to give parents detailed information on school quality that goes beyond the A-F grades awarded by the state, Ferebee said.

“The information that parents need to make informed decisions about school, information they need to hold us accountable, is not readily available,” Ferebee said. “We need to be giving them more information.”

In the dark

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Craigmont High School teacher Wayne Oellig helps his students with a biology experiment related to the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Sitting on the hot sidewalk outside of Craigmont High School in Memphis, ninth-graders wearing paper lab coats carefully connect a gas sensor to a plastic bottle filled with fresh spinach.

They’re conducting a biology experiment that they’ll repeat on Monday during the great American solar eclipse. The objective is to measure the difference in carbon dioxide emission from a plant on a normal day and during a total solar eclipse.

“That’s crazy we’re experiencing history,” Elisha Holmes said Friday as he worked with his lab partners. 

Only steps away, a significant teaching tool that’s tailor-made for such an event sits idle. Craigmont’s 40-year-old planetarium is outdated and in need of a modernization costing up to $400,000. Shuttered since 2010, the space is used now as an occasional gathering place for school meetings and for the football team to watch game films.

Principal Tisha Durrah said the excitement of getting 500 safety glasses for students to watch this month’s rare solar phenomenon is bittersweet because the school’s planetarium isn’t being used.

“It’s a missed opportunity, and we don’t want to keep missing it,” she said.

Tennessee is among 14 states in the direct path of the total eclipse, where observers will see the moon completely cover the sun. For Memphis viewers in the state’s southwestern tip, they’ll see about 90 percent of the sun covered. It isn’t likely to happen again in the U.S. until 2024.

“Hopefully for the next solar eclipse, we’ll have it up and running,” Durrah joked this week as her science teachers found other ways to integrate the eclipse into their lessons.

Money raised so far to reopen the planetarium is a drop in the bucket. Craigmont has taken in about $6,000 toward the $400,000 price tag of fully revamping the space, updating technology and making the planetarium sustainable for years to come.

In the meantime, Durrah has contacted alumni and other potential donors in Memphis and beyond, including the New York planetarium of famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Shelby County Schools has started a fund-raising account and is looking into other ways to help.

Durrah wants her students to participate in a penny drive as well. “Many of them don’t even know the planetarium is here,” she said of the unique theater that hasn’t been functional for years.

Even though he’s found other ways to use the eclipse as a teachable moment, biology teacher Wayne Oellig wishes he could have produced simulations in the school’s planetarium on what a solar eclipse looks like from places like the moon or Mars. With the right software, he could help his students, many of whom come from low-income families, experience what a rainforest or historic battlefield looks like, too.

“You can use it for a whole school experience,” he said.

But the screens on the large dome are stained, and the antiquated projector in the center of the room is stuck in its base. A large device by the control panel looks like a first-generation computer, not a high-tech device that could help the school advance studies in science, technology, engineering and math.

Craigmont could get away with about $60,000 in repairs to make the planetarium operational, but it would be a short-term fix, the principal says. With a full renovation, the district could host tours from other schools, with their fees covering maintenance costs.

Durrah is confident that the investment would pay off. “When our students can relate to real-world experiences, it can enhance what’s going on here at our school,” she said.

Below, watch a video showing teacher Wayne Oellig talk about Craigmont’s planetarium and its possibilities.

With solar eclipse looming, shuttered school planetarium represents ‘missed opportunity’ for Memphis students from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

Follow the money

Audit: NYC issued $2.7 billion in noncompetitive education contracts — and often violates its own rules

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
City Comptroller Scott Stringer criticized the city's ability to keep track of education technology in July.

The city’s education department routinely violated state law and its own policies in issuing contracts worth billions of dollars — mostly awarded without a competitive bidding process.

That’s according to a blistering audit released Friday by city Comptroller Scott Stringer, the first major audit to scrutinize contracting by the de Blasio education department. It found that the department issued $2.7 billion contracts without a competitive process in fiscal year 2016, or roughly 64 percent of all spending on contracts.

The education department routinely failed to properly oversee its vendors, paid them late, and often directed them to begin work before proper paperwork was filed with the comptroller’s office, according to the audit.

“This investigation shows that DOE acts as though the rules don’t matter,” Stringer said in a statement which included 20 recommendations to fix the process. “When it comes to contracting, this is an opaque agency that refuses to accept responsibility, that often uses inaccurate arguments to defend backwards organizational practices.”

Some highlights:

  • Out of 521 “limited competition” contracts, the city directed vendors to begin work before filing appropriate paperwork on 85 percent of them. In one case, a contract was filed two and a half years after the vendor began work.
  • The education department did not correct sloppy oversight of vendors, despite a 2015 audit that urged them to do so. In some cases, “there was no evidence the DOE conducted performance evaluations, as required by the DOE’s own procurement rules,” the audit found.
  • The DOE spent $2 million to pay for “goods or services that had already been improperly purchased in violation of DOE’s procurement rules.”

Stringer’s findings come less than a month after the comptroller blasted the city’s management of education technology in a separate audit that found the education department has lost track of thousands of computers and failed to create an appropriate tracking system for them. Stringer’s harsh criticisms of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s education department come shortly after endorsing the mayor’s re-election bid.

The Bloomberg administration also faced sharp criticism for awarding contracts without soliciting competing bids. The administration’s critics said the mayor was inappropriately applying business practices to public spending. But Joel Klein, Bloomberg’s longest-serving chancellor, dismissed the criticism, saying he’d “never seen [an audit] that didn’t say you couldn’t follow procurement rules a little closer.”

Will Mantell, an education department spokesman, said the city’s procurement process is “rigorous” and “many of this audit’s conclusions are incorrect.”

“We perform background checks on all vendors and post them online, maintain the appropriate documentation on procurements, and recently implemented an electronic performance evaluation system,” Mantell added.